Do not close Pikpa down, replicate it

The Greek government’s decision to shut down Pikpa, an open volunteer-run refugee shelter on the island of Lesbos, is a mistake we cannot afford to make.

Established in November 2012, Pikpa has always been an open, self-organised camp that functions on the principles of dignity and solidarity, writes the camp's co-founder, Efi Latsoudi [Lesvos Solidarity-Pikpa/Facebook]

On the morning of September 10, just hours after a massive fire tore through the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, women at Pikpa, a small volunteer- and refugee-run shelter on the same island, got together to cook. They prepared a variety of rice and vegetable dishes because they wanted the refugees who were forced to flee the fire with little more than the clothes on their backs to have something to eat.

The women, themselves refugees from countries like Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan, also put together small kits containing items like soap, sanitary supplies and clothes to be delivered to the refugees who were, at that moment, sleeping rough in car parks and roadsides.

Such is the spirit of Pikpa. Established in November 2012, it has always been an open, self-organised camp that functions on the principles of dignity and solidarity.

The refugees in this small camp are among the most vulnerable – women travelling alone who have been subjected to sexual abuse and violence; men and women who have been tortured; and children who have seen their parents die in a war zone. While every single refugee on the island has experienced some kind of trauma and is in need of help, the refugees in this camp need additional support. Pikpa hosts approximately 100 refugees in small wooden houses. In the eight years since its establishment, more than 30,000 refugees passed through the camp.

After Moria was destroyed, the Greek government, with the support of the European Union, set up an emergency camp on a former military shooting range, right beside the sea, where the winds are strong and there is no infrastructure. Despite the world being in the middle of a deadly pandemic, there is still no running water or toilet facilities in the camp. At the moment, the camp is hosting some 9,000 people in squalid conditions.

Despite the growing need for acceptable, dignified housing options for refugees on the island, the Greek government has announced plans to shut down Pikpa by October 15, and Kara Tepe, another camp designed for the most vulnerable and run by the municipality of Lesbos, by the end of the year.

This would be a mistake.

When we started Pikpa, we wanted to send the message that refugees can live in dignified conditions and that our community can support them. We wanted to show that you do not need to violate people’s rights in order to protect the host society. We have proved this point, in many ways.

Not only have refugees received the specific psychosocial support they need in our camp but, through interactions with local and international volunteers, they have become a part of our community. Some of their children go to the local school. Some participate in the local music group, others sing in the local choir. They have become our friends.

Having large numbers of people living in rough conditions, isolated from the local community, promotes fear on all sides and is a recipe for hatred. Xenophobia and racism are on the rise on Lesbos. Right-wing groups attack refugees, aid workers, and volunteers. They even beat pregnant women and young children arriving on our shores.

Instead of spending millions of euros to get the emergency camp into a liveable state, why not invest in smaller, more dignified, camps for refugees on the island of Lesbos and across Greece? Taking inspiration from Pikpa and Kara Tepe, we can set up accommodation options that bring us together, not trap people behind wire fences and alienate them from society.

Lesbos has been in a difficult situation for years, and the EU must work with the Greek government to decongest the island. But I ask both EU leaders and the Greek government to look at what has been working on Lesbos. The fire at the Moria camp did not happen in a vacuum. Grossly overcrowded, under-resourced, alienating, it was a site that fomented tensions and hate. Pikpa, and Kara Tepe, on the other hand, fosters community.

I am an optimist at heart. It is an optimism based on the belief that we can build solidarity in our society, and, on the conviction that we do not have another option. The situation on the island is undoubtedly complicated, but I see the power – and the necessity – of people coming together, and working together, to make life better not only for the refugees but also the wider community.

Dignified, community-run shelters like Pikpa are bright beacons of hope in what has otherwise been a tremendously dark experience for refugees on the island of Lesbos.

They should not be closed. They should be replicated.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.